(An open letter to the Martyrs of Peshawar)
The sun is soon to rise as bright
As if the night had brought no sorrow,
That grief belonged to me alone,
The sun shines on a common morrow.
You must not shut the night inside you,
But endlessly in light the dark immerse,
A tiny lamp has gone out in my tent –
I bless the flame that warms the universe.
Songs on the Death of Children
Many years ago, when I had gotten used to absences, I realized that the numbness of the heart was only the mist passing over the lightless homes of this silent city at night. While I slept, the state of absence had quietly carved a cavernous hole in my heart, a raw wound, much like those that marked your beautiful body when life was taken from you, brutally, mindlessly, without purpose.
Since you left, that wound has grown so much larger that there is no heart any more – in its place there is nothing but your absence, dear one, an absence so powerful that it keeps me up at night, etched into my eyelids, carved into my memory, bleeding into my resolve to carry on without you. You, my dear one, have taken me with you, and all that remains now is an empty shell, a hollow vessel where only your voice resounds, shaking the fibre of my being when I remember each inflection of your language, each vowel and consonant that formed words of love from your mouth.
What did you do, dear one, to be taken away like this, mercilessly, so much before your time? It was time for us to go, those who failed you, those who failed to see that the enemy was amongst us, those who saw the enemy and did not recognize its insidious intent. It was your time to blossom, to flower, to dream your dreams in your waking hours, becoming the capable person who would make us proud. What did you do, dear one, to suffer this terrible travesty? What were your last thoughts, dear one, when you confronted the enemy? What went through that beautiful mind of yours when the enemy showered you with a hail of deadly bullets? Did you even have time to understand what was happening? Did you think of calling out, to call us to come, quickly, before it was too late? Was there time for that? Or did it all happen in a flash, a moment which defined the all too indelible difference between life and death? Dear One, speak to me, tell me your last thoughts, tell me that you did not feel the bullet piercing your flesh, that the pain did not invade the unbruised parts of your young body.
It is your eyes that I shall never forget, the bright light of your soul spreading itself like sunshine through the golden orb of your eyes. Tell me, dear one, what did you see, before that moment when that light faded from your golden eyes, that moment when life passed out of your fragile body, your soul wafting upwards to a safe place from where you would watch us mourn for you, grieving inconsolably, angry that this should have happened, that life should have abandoned you just when you were at its threshold.
What did your golden eyes see, dear one? Did you see in their eyes the hatred that is but a manifestation of fear, burning like live coals in hollow sockets where the life had already been snuffed out by ideologues of odium? Did you see the madness that comes from dangerous manipulation, predicated on perceptions of deprivation? Did you see the glory that your enemy coveted, that perverse dream that has been offered as incentive for the heinous crime that was to be committed, transporting not the victim but the perpetrator to some notion of a heavenly after-life? Did you see death in the deep recess of his chest, a mere hole where a heart should have been? What did you see, dear one?
Tell us of the horror you faced when you peered into the abyss of the enemy’s eyes, dear one. Tell us of the distortions which marked his mind like a cancerous skin enveloping all in its diseased folds. Tell us of the curl of his lips, the snarl of his mouth as he spat the order to destroy all that was beautiful, all that was precious, you, dear one, and all the others who shared your ordeal, huddled together for safety, grasping a hand which may pull one towards the light, towards life, hunched over in death, together for one last time.
I search the silence for your voice, your words, and I hear nothing but my own, a dirge, a lament for your young life cut short so brutally. I hear my own thoughts flooding my mind relentlessly, my own fears, my own fragility poised to take away what I have wanted to believe in: the goodness of humans, the triumph of good over evil. I want to scream out at this void created by your absence – I want to tear up the façade of civility, I want to go on a rampage, hurting, harming all that comes in my way. For where is the justice, where is the purpose of so much senseless killing, dear one? Who shall avenge your murder, who shall fight back, who shall banish this monster to that land of frozen hearts where it was given birth, more than three decades ago?
Dear One, here is something I have not shared with many. I tell you this because I know you shall want to know why it is that you and your colleagues in their green woolen blazers were covered in each other’s blood on that cold floor of your school auditorium. Many, many years ago, when I was a little older than the age at which you passed from this life into another world, I saw the bodies alongside the road of a city many miles away from the borders of our homeland. I saw the tanks rolling down those rutted roads and I shuddered at the thought of what was to come: the unfolding of an agenda which would envelop us in its dangerous design, building on notions of power which were disguised in the garb of religiosity. Today, that agenda has become a part of the fabric of the shroud which covers us all, burying us in its evil intent. Today, that horribly disfigured notion of religiosity has become a part of our landscape where people kill each other with impunity, where brother is pitted against brother, where those who subscribe to another set of beliefs are burnt to death or executed or blown up with bombs.
Dear One, you were the latest in the long list of martyrs who have been felled in the path of this dragon which destroys everything we have known: this is a creature which does not know music, it does not hear the rhythm of the seasons nor listen to bird song, to the laughter of children playing on a dirt floor. This is a creature constructed out of greed and fed on fear, nurtured on a repast of promised riches in an afterlife where all that was not theirs in this world would be theirs to claim in the next. This is a beast which does not even know its master for there are many who feed it, with the intent to destroy all that is good and worthy. This is a creation of minds who hide behind secret veils, clothing themselves in the garb of civilization. This is an enemy who was created to vanquish one and conquer another. And you, dear one, are but one of the thousands who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This is a creature which has burned to death, summarily executed, blown up into lifeless pieces of dismembered flesh, thousands of others, young and old, women and men, children and the aged. This is an enemy which knows no mercy, no reason, nor no humanity. It is a beast bereft of sanity, of sensitivity, of the sensibility of all that is sacred: life itself. This monster has been armed with weapons that it brandishes in our faces, threatening all that we hold dear to us. It has been clothed in the garments of perverse perception dictating its understanding of the faith, denouncing all those who do not follow its path, killing them as one would destroy a plague.
But, Dear One, it is this creature which has brought the plague, it is this monster which needs to be destroyed, and those who try to tell us otherwise need to be shown the face of hate in a mirror. Dear One, let me tell you that those who you have left behind are poised at the edge of a precipice where one false move can throw us over the edge. We, the living, must understand that there is a fine line between life and death – it is the line that you stood at on December 16th. It is the line at which we, the living, stand, choosing between a life lived with passion and conviction, or a life that is akin to death, devoid of purpose and intent.
Dear One, I was not there to ensure that you crossed that line towards life, but I am here to ensure I remain firmly rooted in my conviction that in order to defeat this enemy we must replace the idea of destruction with the idea of creation. We must choose life over death, and unless we destroy the idea and the hatred it has engendered, we shall have to get used to many more absences, much as this one, dear one, which gnaws away at my insides, hurting me each time I remember your smile, your gentle touch, each time I see another young child preparing for another day, another chance at life. I ask you, dear one, to judge me by the enemies I have made. For in this shall I find the courage to carry on with your absence firmly etched into my soul. In this resolve can we find the solace we long for. In this action can we heal the terrible suffering inflicted upon us. But it is a long journey ahead of us, dear one, one that is beyond the aerial strikes and the warfare. This is going to be a battle of minds more than a war of weapons, for it is the idea which feeds both life and death, and we must ensure that it is life we feed, not hatred nor death. For there are too many shrouds encasing the bodies of young citizens of my bleeding homeland; there are too many graves which mark the landscape of my anguished homeland. It is enough now, dear one: this is a promise I make to you.
The writer studied Political Economy at McGill University, Montreal, Media Education at the University of London, Development Communication at the University of Southern California, and Cultural Heritage Management at the National College of Arts, Lahore. She teaches at apex institutions, writes columns for a leading daily, makes documentaries, and has published two best-selling novels.